Schools seek boost in capital funding

New Northern High among county's priorities

January 23, 2003|By Tricia Bishop | Tricia Bishop,SUN STAFF

In one of the tightest budget years in recent memory, the Howard County public school system was pleading yesterday in Annapolis for $39.3 million more than the $3.1 million it was granted in state funding for capital projects.

"We are not asking the state to assume an increasing share of school construction costs for Howard County or even the full amount," Howard Superintendent John R. O'Rourke wrote in his appeal to the Board of Public Works. "We are seeking a cooperative relationship. ... But we need more than the $3.1 million approved."

During what's affectionately become known as the "beg-a-thon," representatives from 21 of the county's 24 school districts pleaded their cases to the Maryland bigwigs at a daylong public hearing.

O'Rourke and most of the county delegation and school board stood before Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele (Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. stepped out during their presentation), state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, Comptroller William Donald Schaefer and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, and asked for the money.

It would finance nine construction projects, 11 planning projects and four projects already paid for by the county - one of which goes back 15 years, O'Rourke said.

Howard County's student population has been rising an average of 1,000 every year since 1989. To accommodate the growth, nearly 30 schools have been built, and the need continues to grow. Reducing class size in first and second grades from a maximum of 25 pupils to 19 reduced total building capacity by more than 2,200 seats, and full-day kindergarten, which must be implemented by 2007 will only make matter worse.

Deputy Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin has been coming to these hearings since 1972 and has developed a realistic outlook.

"There's no way they could give us everything we're asking for," he said. "But we're greatly dependent upon state funds right now. What they've given us is woefully inadequate."

The state budget estimate allows $78.5 million for school construction, $60 million of which has been doled out. Even if the remaining $18.5 million were given to Howard, it would be enough only to cover beginning construction on the new Northern High School, set to open in 2005 and the fifth-highest priority on Howard's wish list.

The top priorities in each of the three project categories - construction, planning and forward-funded repayment - include a $2 million addition to Howard High School and a $7.5 million replacement school for Cedar Lane, along with a $2.6 million renovation project already completed on Hammond Elementary/Middle school.

"We're still waiting for the money," said Bruce M. Venter, the chief business officer.

The $3.1 million offered from the state would cover work on three elementary schools: West Friendship, Bellows Spring and Forest Ridge

Last year, the state provided counties $156.5 million in school construction, down from a high in 2001 of $356 million. Howard received $12.4 million, making this year's offering upsetting by comparison.

"Parents move here expecting all the amenities of the other schools," said Sandra H. French, county school board chairwoman. "They don't expect the overcrowding, and they don't want the redistricting."

"We know there are pressing matters out there," Steele said. "We have to work together to move forward and confront them."

The final allocations won't be made before spring.

"We need the state contribution or something doesn't get built," school board member Courtney Watson said. "There's a limit to what the county can do."

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